Recently I visited the House of Commons, the seat of our federal government. As a guest I was invited to sit in on question period. But while I was in line the Minister of Heritage, Melanie Joly came up right beside me and began a long conversation in French with a monsignor of the Catholic Church. It was a pretty chaotic moment and I desperately tried to scan my brain for something I could say to her that was both intelligent and had enough of an activist inclination as to make an impression. I also thought of giving her my “Has the artist been paid?” button from CARFAC (security made me take it off and it got passed around and then okay’d – I take this as quite the honour. If a CARFAC button gets a second look by security on Parliament Hill we are all doing some thing right.). But of course, being the intellectual turtle that I am and that I completely do not agree with ambushing people, once I thought of something she was already walking down the hall escorting the monsignor to whatever place they were meeting.
The thing is I wasn’t there as an artist, I was there representing CARC, the NGO I now work for. So… it did occur to me that perhaps I might jeopardize my associations with an unseemly introduction that the minister was not ready for. Opportunity lost perhaps, or perhaps opportunity understood; oddly the entire experience was a confidence booster. It’s like ‘I get it’ now. I also realized that politics will never be my thing however policy and how it helps and hurts society always will.
Being in our nation’s capital just before xmas with all its trim and bustle (it is crazy busy there these days as rockstar PM has made it a tourist destination as well) made me think about how people do have a natural urge to gather. It’s for an anthropologist to say but we seem to want to get together for all sorts of things, rituals, politics, protests, commemorations, revolutions, and of course art. Yet art continues to moan about its lack of interest from the public. I can’t think of another time in history more people experienced art – if you’ve ever gone to a major gallery in Europe and waited forever in line you know what I mean. And yet, contemporary art makers continue to have a numbers problem. People line up for a recognized work but stay away from the new. See this very interesting article from Canadian Arts Presenting Association . People don’t want to attend art events out of lack of interest. It’s a fairly simple but kinda’ heart breaking conclusion.
Usually at this point I would go on endlessly about how contemporary art should shoulder a lot of the blame for this as most of the work shown in galleries speaks only to the MFA class and its tiny community, and with tons of money being auctioned on so-so works from the masters people are being turned off art as much as they are turned on by it. But I would rather consider that art was always a marginal pursuit with a reputation and fixture as the touchstone to our culture that has become outsized. And that art’s value is bounced around throughout our society as a volleyball for politics and economics, used and abused by everyone to artwash their event or stance or campaign. And now art’s meaning isn’t just a profound moment one has with an object of great significance, beauty and meaning but that it is now a conduit for all sorts of displays of activism, good and bad as well as crass means of making people feel belonging. To this there are many who feel it’s a reality whose time has come. Art now being the most targeted form of patriarchal oppression – all those museums with stuff by white guys, yeuch.
Art has become its own monster and is now devouring its children. This is the world I am an artist in. This is the reality, like it or not. Like many in my generation, we never got to that brass ring or made a fortune, most of us have just kept our heads down and made adaptation and survival our guides. We had to learn metric, French, video, the internet and devices in our lifetime as well as deal with the devolving of post war socialist ideals. We were given the gift of globalization just as we became adults and have made the realization in the last decade many of us will never own a home or a car for that matter. We are environmentally sophisticated and active, politically charged by listening to The Clash in high school and we legitimized science fiction, graphic novels, independent publishing, Queer and women’s studies and made irony a thing. We are also the inheritors of precarious work and have adapted in ways that should astonish any low tax neo-liberal.
This past month in Peterborough an extraordinary thing happened, a festival took place devoted to ideas of precarious work including art, art making, theatre, publishing, poetry, music, politics, discussions and articles. The Precarious Festival was the brain child of several people (too many to name really) but it was directed mainly by Kate Story and Ryan Kerr who run and operate The Theatre on King. Manifesting a critical economic conversation into art is not an easy thing to do. But Kate and Ryan and many others in Peterborough are part of my nimble and able generation so the festival was a raucous success in many ways, pivoting notions of art into activism. A lot of the events were remarkable for their artistry as well as activism. The festival eschewed the numbers game and reached out to all sorts of ideas regarding art thereby vastly improving its interest for the general public – although that wasn’t the reason for the festival, the point was to gather people around an epoch; precarity is the new normal, a new adaptation, so now what? Now there’s an opening for a conversation with our Minister of Heritage. Dang.
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The Theatre on King